Iraqi children return to school, eager to shed ISIS ‘language of violence’

As teachers set about untangling the violent programming Islamic State militants had imposed on the children, one student's comments echo an unquenchable spirit of humanity among everyday Iraqis.

Fay Abuelgasim/AP
Sagar Saddam, front row third right, sits in class after his school reopened today, in Awasaja, Iraq, Tuesday.
Fay Abuelgasim/AP
Schoolgirls gather in the Awsaja school yard after the school reopened today, in Awasaja, Iraq, Tuesday.

"One bullet plus two bullets equals how many bullets?"

These were the kinds of questions teachers were forced to ask Iraqi students in math class during the militant group known as the Islamic State’s two-year reign of terror in the northern town of Qayyara.

Militants from the self-declared caliphate were driven from Qayyara three months ago, during the beginning stages of the United States-backed Iraqi military campaign to recapture the city of Mosul about 40 miles to the north of the town. But as students who stopped attending school during the group’s reign of indoctrination return to class, some teachers believe it will take years to unwind the damage done to their pupils. Still, amid the concern, one student's comments highlight a remarkable resilience among everyday Iraqis.

School officially began in September, but students have only just been re-issued standard Iraqi textbooks which had been replaced with IS propaganda. While many students had the wherewithal to voluntarily withdraw from class – or were withdrawn by their parents – after militants captured the town in 2014, one of their teachers, Maha Nadhem Kadhem estimates it could take up to five years to normalize their behavior even if a rehabilitation program is implemented.

"The biggest impact is on children," Farouq Mahjoub, the assistant headmaster of a secondary school for boys in Qayyara, told Reuters. "Children are malleable; you can change their opinion and beliefs quickly," adding that their behavior was more aggressive than before and their games violent.

When Islamic State militants overran the town in the middle of 2014, they banned all subjects they considered un-Islamic, including civic education, geography, and history. Now, Ms. Kadhem says, some have lost two years worth of learning.

"They have forgotten their lessons.... Now we are reminding them," she said, pacing around the classroom, in which four girls are squeezed onto each bench made for two. "We don't want them to be illiterate and ignorant."

And for teachers like Kadhem, the difficulty in their effort to make up that gap is compounded by a teacher shortage in the Qarraya, after many were displaced by the violence. The town’s girl’s school currently has an 80:1 student-teacher ratio.

Yet, despite deep concerns about the children’s welfare, the words of one 8-year-old student, Iman, point to a broader spirit of resilience and generosity among everyday Iraqis.

"We are happy to be back at school," said Iman, who like most of her classmates stopped attending classes after IS took control. "They wanted us to come but we didn't want to because we don't know how to study in their language, the language of violence."

Iman’s fellow citizens echoed her resilience last month when Iraqis, despite being engulfed in war since 2003, topped a global poll of 140 countries, as the most generous country towards strangers in need.

This report contains material from Reuters.

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